Let’s cut through the crap, shall we? The terms “casual” and “hardcore” are codes. They’re words we use in the public sphere to refer to something that we do not want to say directly. Sometimes, that code is easy to read. “Family values” means Christian fundamentalism, for example. “Pro-choice” isn’t free will, but is instead support for the legality of abortion. “Socially conscious” hip hop means that the lyrics complain about the music industry. For gamers, terms like “hardcore” and “casual” are a code with clear meanings. So let’s be real, and call a spade a spade: “Hardcore” means dick.
Or rod. Or johnson. Or, for the critical analysis fans out there, the phallus. “Hardcore” equals masculine. “Casual” equals feminine. It’s just that simple, and all the marketing-speak about “core” gamers won’t change that.
Consider how the terms are used. A game like Bejeweled is casual, and the usual reason given for this is that it’s a simple browser game. Fair enough. But what about The Sims? While it may be considered a core game, since it cost full price in 2000 and used the latest technology, I think most gamers and game marketers understand that Sims players are so-called casual gamers, no matter how much time or money they invest in the game. That’s because The Sims appeals to women as well as men. Ditto FarmVille obsessives who set their alarms for 3:30 am to harvest their crops. That’s hardcore, but who’s going to say so? (Game Industry veteran Greg Costikyan says exactly that, in his article “A New Audience,” in this issue of The Escapist. – Ed.) Likewise, Nintendo’s systems are disdained by “real” or “hardcore” gamers as being too “kiddie” (or casual) with their brightly colored graphics and games aimed at wider demographics. Girls might like that kind of game, and they have cooties!
Boys, of course, like real games. And “real games” are based on the toys that boys play with: cars, guns, and balls. Racing games, shooters, and sports games. Need For Speed, Gears of War, and Madden. In addition to their masculine subject matter, games in these genres are almost always multiplayer, allowing for opponents to be crushed and driven before the player, and (theoretically) for the lamentation of their women to be heard.
A game like Plants vs. Zombies is a near-perfect case study. Being a PopCap game, it’s easy to label it as casual, but is it really? The interface is relatively simple, yes, but the gameplay is that of a real-time strategy game, and the subject matter is the slaughter of hordes of zombies. What makes this casual compared to, say, WarCraft III which is also a real-time strategy game which involves the destruction of undead hordes? It’s not the content, it’s the cover.
Social psychology studies have found that children recognize what toys and games go with the “proper” gender based on the form of the toy more than the content. Guns are for boys and tea-sets are for girls, yes, but what happens when you show a child a fuzzy, pink gun? They look at the cover, and say it’s a toy for girls. Plants vs. Zombies is that pink, fuzzy game; its content is a hardcore game, but it looks like a casual game, thanks to its marketing, its bright, 2D graphics and relatively simple grid.
The difference becomes even clearer with MMOGs, which are often played by both casual and hardcore gamers. PvPers are almost always considered more hardcore, and they certainly consider themselves more hardcore. Does it make sense to call someone who raids three hours a night, four times per week, casual? Not to me, but “PvE carebear” is a term which gets tossed around by “hardcore” PvPers. Of course, another term often used by PvPers in any online game is “rape.”
The use of the term rape, as in, “I totally raped that druid,” or “We raped those noobs in Call of Duty,” makes the implicit sexual violence of the hardcore gamer explicit. It is not enough to defeat the enemy in a fair fight. It is not enough to kill the opposing player’s avatar; it must be rape, the worst action that someone can do to another in our society (short of killing them). Their manhood is supposedly crushed, and they are rendered defenseless and pathetic. It is the ultimate form of dominance, combining violence, sex, and identity. And the winner gets to feel like their “e-peen,” the electronic penis, is bigger, better, and stronger.
Terms like “rape” and “e-peen” are thrown around so much in online games that one has to wonder if the speakers are in on the joke. They may not say it academically, such as declaring that competitive multiplayer gaming is often a battle for possession of the phallus, and they may not even wish to acknowledge the inherent sex and gender basis of the terms when baldly confronted with it, as I’m doing here, but they can see through the bullshit. Real gamers, hardcore gamers, are using those terms to express their masculinity, not to make any particular claim about the nature of the game. But the expression of masculinity says nothing directly about their genetics or their genitals, but instead, their performance. It’s all about how they want the world to perceive them. The “e-peen” is that academic phallus, because it’s entirely performative.
This is not to say that everyone or even anyone who uses the word “rape” to say that they beat someone in an online game is a rapist, a would-be rapist, or any kind of bad person. I’ve played World of Warcraft with wonderful players who use the term casually, as its meaning has become so diluted that it just means “defeated in combat.” The point instead is that the term has caught on because it denotes both success in combat and a performance of masculinity. The popularity of “teabagging” opponents’ corpses in PvP games works along the same principle. There are other actions which could be taken to taunt an opponent – if you can crouch in a game, you can almost always jump as well – but the one which can be interpreted as an act of aggressive male sexuality is the one that caught on.
Perhaps this dismays you, gentle reader. Perhaps it upsets you, not-so-gentle reader. It can be discomfiting to have seemingly innocuous terms labeled as sexist and violent code words, which leads to demanding questions along the lines of “What is to be done?” To be honest, I don’t think there’s anything that’s going to make this hardcore maleness go away. It taps into the same social vein as physical sports, frat and military hazings, pro wrestling, and muscle cars. These outlets exist and have existed for decades, for better or worse, before that yammering 14-year-old called you a homosexual while playing Halo 3. Certainly, games allow for social interactions where such bursts of testosterone poisoning wash over people who wouldn’t normally be ready for such immersion.
Yet, as easy as it would be to declare that “boys will be boys” (even when they’re women, though that’s rare), it still gets in the way of accurate descriptions. For some people, “hardcore” gamers play these masculine games. For others, it means simply the amount of time spent on a game, ignoring or willfully dismissing the code that “casual” is more feminine than “hardcore.” Sometimes we can figure it out from context. Even still, continuing to use these words will trigger debate or controversy about what’s really casual or really hardcore. On the other hand, it’s good to have these distinct terms. A term for people who play a lot of games is useful. Likewise, it’s good to have a term for people who like boy games and only boy games.
The problem is that once terms are defined, it’s almost impossible to change them intentionally. Of the likely dozens of terms which people attempted to use to describe gamers who played a great deal to the point where “gamer” was a significant part of their identity, why was hardcore chosen and accepted? The term itself wasn’t common before describing music genres like hardcore punk, or especially graphic or “hardcore” pornography. It generally means uncompromising, with a screw-the-system aesthetic. Punk music, explicit pornography and videogaming all have stereotypes of being male-oriented pursuits, and likewise, they all moved into the popular consciousness starting in the late 1970s. Now the term can be used generically to describe anything or any action perceived as uncompromising.”You told your boss off? That’s hardcore, dude.”
In issue 235 of The Escapist, Erin Hoffman specifically drew the parallels between the male-dominated punk movement and the videogames industry today in Riot Grrls Wanted. Dealing with coded terms like “hardcore gamer” and “real gamers” is primarily symbolic, far from the creative force of the riot grrls. However, both concepts strike directly at the implicit and encoded masculine dominance of the videogame industry.
There is one term which contains an identification which can compare with the term “hardcore gamer.” It encompasses regular Call of Duty players, FarmVille fanatics, Bejeweled addicts, and your raid healer in World of Warcraft. It stands as entirely distinct from “non-gamer” or “person who happens to play games.” It is a statement of frank identity, instead of a loaded, coded and confusing claim of maleness. It is, simply, “gamer.” A person who declares that they are a gamer, that playing games is a part and parcel of who they are, implies as much or more about their relationship to the game industry as “hardcore” does. Why not use it instead?
Rowan Kaiser is a fashionably underemployed freelance writer living the Bay Area. He blogs at renaissancegamer.blogspot.com, tweets @rowankaiser, and is currently working on a book about the history of video games.